Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


Why I Don’t “Move On”

March 31, 2015

I sometimes think I suffer from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related to my 40 years of activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For many years I had vivid nightmares in which I was a missionary again; in the dreams I knew I had a life and a family, but I was back in the mission and I couldn’t go home. I would wake up sweating and shaking, so relieved it was just a dream. These dreams finally faded away after I spent 5 weeks writing down everything I could remember about my missionary experience (this was the raw material that formed the basis of my book, Heaven Up Here).

As I noted in the last post, I watched part of “Going Clear” on HBO on Sunday night and the rest on my lunch hour yesterday. I can’t quite describe the feelings it has dredged up, sort of a horrified, outraged sorrow that I can’t shake. It took me a long time to get to sleep last night, even though I took my night-time medication at the usual time.

Why did it affect me like this? Because I know what it is to be used and manipulated and controlled. The worst thing about it is that I allowed it to happen to me. I let other people tell me I was no good and that the only way I could hope to be better was to dedicate myself entirely to the program they prescribed for me. I gave up my life to follow someone else’s script for me. I tried so hard to be what I was supposed to be that I almost scrubbed away every trace of who I really am inside.

It’s been 9 years since I acknowledged to myself that I knew Mormonism wasn’t right or true or good or whatever you want to call it. Mormons keep telling me I should be “over” it. I should leave it alone, stop being so negative, stop obsessing, whatever. It’s not healthy for me to continue thinking about it. I need to forgive and forget and “move on.”

Fuck that.

What “Going Clear” reminded me of is that there are organizations and people out there who do real damage to people. Scientology is a good example, and I applaud people like Paul Haggis and Mike Rinder for having the courage to speak out and continue to fight the good fight. Mormonism is–to me, anyway–not nearly as extreme as Scientology, but it too is a controlling, manipulative organization that hurts people. It hurt me, but more importantly, it’s still hurting other people. A lot of them. I think of the pain that one of my cousins went through when he told his family he didn’t believe in Mormonism. He felt, rightly, that he was being condemned and ostracized simply for expressing his beliefs. Family and friends and church leaders told him to shut up and keep his thoughts to himself, just as family and friends insisted that Paul Haggis destroy his letter of resignation from Scientology and “leave quietly.” That happened to me, too. I was told over and over that it was OK to believe whatever I wanted, as long as I never told anyone else about it.

I think of the families who have been broken up, the lives destroyed, because the LDS church cannot tolerate or respect those who lose faith. The church teaches that people like me and my cousin are apostates who are bitter and evil. Our loved ones grieve over us because we are supposed to be lost and angry, kicking against the pricks. I’ve been told I have stolen my family’s exaltation, broken my wife and children’s hearts, rejected God and Jesus and everything that is good in this life. Even when someone in the LDS church has tried to understand and maintain a relationship, there’s always been a wide gulf between us, and it’s extremely awkward.

Obviously, it’s not all on them. But I have made a concerted effort not to make religion a point of division with my family and friends. I don’t talk about my beliefs or why I hold them with those around me. Even when I’m asked, I only share things if I think there is a possibility for a good conversation and a positive outcome. In short, in my personal relationships, I follow a strict “live and let live” philosophy where religion is concerned, and I never bring it up.

That brings me to my blog. Despite my best efforts to stop thinking about Mormonism, it is part of just about every day of my life. Just three days ago, the missionaries dropped by unannounced to try to get me to “commit” to attending church on Sunday. The LDS church inserts itself into my life all the time. My well-meaning LDS friends and relatives send me stuff all the time. My mom tells me every week about the wonderful experiences she has at church. One of my children attends an LDS-owned university.

So, I write about Mormonism as it comes up. And because it comes up all the time, I tend to write about it more often than not. Because of that, I have had a steady stream of commenters who tell me how wrong it is for me to write about Mormonism, how I will never “heal” as long as I can’t just forgive the LDS church, walk away from it, and “leave it alone.” They are, they tell me, simply concerned with my mental and emotional well-being.

No, they are not. They are protecting their church from perceived harm. They know what the church is and what it does to people, but they have decided that the organization is far more important than the well-being of anyone who is harmed by it. As long as they get what they want from the church, to hell with everyone else.

And that’s why I still care about Mormonism and what it does to people. As long as it continues to hurt people, I will continue to speak out.


Going Clear

March 30, 2015

I watched most of the HBO documentary “Going Clear” last night and then watched the last bit on my lunch hour. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the film talks with former high-ranking Scientologists about their experiences in Scientology. It has really affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. Most of all, it helped me understand perhaps a little better how controlling organizations work and why we allow them to exert control over ourselves. I wrote down some of the quotes that resonated with me, probably because I see how these things have applied in my own life.

You get this phobia inducement that if I leave, it’s all going to go down the tubes. When you’re in the organization, all the good that happens to you is because of Scientology, and everything that isn’t good is your fault.

How many times have I heard that, if I was having problems, they were a result of me not trying hard enough or not having enough faith or not being humble enough?

You begin to believe that you need the organization to survive, to have any hope of a decent life.

Your future, your eternity, all depends on you going up the Bridge. It’s scary. It’s kinda like Christianity with hell. If they don’t have the Bridge, they can’t go free. They don’t believe they can get it anywhere else.

What happens is that you no longer trust yourself to live your life authentically. You adopt someone else’s script for your life. “You take on a kind of a matrix of thought that is not your own.”

A lot of controlling organizations have a sort of “milk before meat” approach, where you have to prove your worthiness over time before you can be trusted with the deeper truths, the bigger covenants and commitments.

I finally get to OT 3, and they give me the secret materials, which I’ve been hearing about all this time. They’re hand-written by [L. Ron] Hubbard. You have to keep them in a locked briefcase, be very cautious, because if this gets out, it’s dangerous to people. It could actually do them harm if they are not adequately prepared. And I read it, and it doesn’t make any sense. … This garbled story that didn’t make sense. I remember for one fleeting second thinking maybe it’s an insanity test–maybe if you believe this, they kick you out. Maybe that’s it. That, of course, is not the case. They talk about the fact, you know, that the earth was at such-and-such trillions of years ago, and this guy, this space guy … galactic overlord, this was a prison planet, and people being caught and captured and being brought to planet Earth … and then put them in volcanoes and then blow them up with A-bombs … Whoa! I studied geography in school. Those volcanoes didn’t exist 75 million years ago. … And we have these lost souls all over us, and we have to get rid of them, and I’m going, What the f*** are you talking about? I’m down for the self-help stuff, I’m down for, OK, I can be clear, I can get rid of the negative emotions, but what the f*** is this?

And for many people, when the big reveal comes, it’s not only a bit underwhelming but a little, well, silly. But by that point, you’re in, and it doesn’t really matter. You’re willing even to take physical and emotional abuse:

Initially , you’re like, “This is absurd. This is nuts.” And then you kinda settle in and go, “Well, obviously, I need to deal with something that I’m not facing. So perhaps this is–they’re doing this to make me better.”

After all, everyone else seems to be happy, and you don’t want to seem like the one loser who doesn’t get it. So you tell everyone else you’re happy, too, even if you’re miserable.

All Scientologists are full of shit. You know, they lie. “Aw, I’m doing great! You gotta get on seven.” You know, and they’re f***ing–“I’ve got a f***ing migraine right now, and I’ve never felt so shitty!” You know, that’s the f***ing life.

You become quite adept at rationalizing even the worst things, and you blame yourself for not “getting it,” for not seeing the good and the blessings everyone else sees.

Those years of introspection eventually led me to sincerely considering that I was so bad that I couldn’t confront how bad I was. I didn’t know it at the time, but a depression set in that was with me for years, and the worst thing that was LRH kept ordering me to more auditing. I had to find swords that were stuck in me–hypothetical swords, imaginary swords that were causing all this pain. This auditing went on and on. It wasn’t doing any good. I should have been left alone. But everything that I took offense with, I rationalized almost immediately. I had to. I could not continue in this game of Scientology without explaining away what he was doing. It got to be a way of believing, and every one of us got into that. [L. Ron Hubbard] was the master who did it to us, and we took it on and then we did it to ourselves. And I learned from it, that I would never ever again, you know, go–do the bidding of a tyrant.

“We took it on and we did it to ourselves.” That made my stomach hurt and had me close to tears.

Some people even rationalize dishonesty (or “theocratic ethics,” in another context):

Because Scientology is perceived and conceived by Scientologists as being the salvation for mankind, you can have people that lie with a very straight face if they believe that what they are doing is protecting the Church of Scientology.

And the pain and shame of coming out are devastating.

It’s such a hard thing when you do wake up. You go, “Oh, my God.” Because you have this wave of regrets. I just started to think that maybe my entire life has been a lie. … You just don’t see it happening to you. You justify so much. [T]hey prey on people, suggesting that, you know, you should be able to think for yourself and then tell you exactly how you have to think, or get out. And if you get out, there will be consequences.

In the end, however, we are the ones who do it to ourselves, and that’s what is most devastating to me.

We lock up a portion of our own mind. We willingly put cuffs on. We willingly avoid things that could cause us pain, if we just looked. If we can just believe something, then we don’t have to really think for ourselves, do we? And so I can’t damn these people who aren’t coming out, or who are hiding once they come out because they’re ashamed. You know, I feel the same shame.